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John Connolly: Veteran goalkeeper opens up on struggle with grief that nearly killed him

A family he has never met stopped him from taking his own life

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Number one: John Connolly in action for Ballinamallard United. Credit: David Maginnis

Number one: John Connolly in action for Ballinamallard United. Credit: David Maginnis

John with his three-year-old son Noah

John with his three-year-old son Noah

John with his dad Sean who passed away in April, 2018

John with his dad Sean who passed away in April, 2018

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Number one: John Connolly in action for Ballinamallard United. Credit: David Maginnis

When grief comes to your door, it never leaves.

Life goes on and you must learn how to live with it.

For some of us grief can be so heavy that it drops us into a well of despair.

In the case of experienced Irish League goalkeeper John Connolly, grief nearly killed him.

Struggling to cope with the loss of his mum, dad, nephew and sister, John decided that he didn’t want to fight on, but a young family who he has never met saved his life.

On Monday, March 21 at 2.52pm, John approached a cliff edge and could see the rocks below as he prepared to jump.

But he saw a young family playing on the beach below and he couldn’t put them through the nightmare that was about to unfold.

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He found the strength to back off from the cliff edge and call for help.

John is sharing his story because he would like to thank the Back Onside charity for their fantastic support and he is encouraging anyone whose mental health is suffering to reach out for help.

The Dubliner always thought he was a big strong man who could process the grief and carry on, but he was wrong.

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John with his dad Sean who passed away in April, 2018

John with his dad Sean who passed away in April, 2018

John with his dad Sean who passed away in April, 2018

John’s journey with grief started in March, 2015 when his mum Bernie passed away and the world just got darker when he lost his nephew Jason, dad Sean and sister Shirley.

The 45-year-old decided he couldn’t take it anymore.

“I thought I would be grand and I was dealing with it all, but it was being bottled up inside and eventually it all got too much for me,” says John, father to Noah (3) and Shelby (21).

“The hardest part is to say how close I came to ending my life. I was close to taking my own life.

“There’s a family out there who don’t know me, but because of them I didn’t do what I was going to.

“I had gone to a beach area that had cliffs. I had walked on the beach and there were rocks on it. I knew that was me done.

“I went to the top of the cliffs and there was nothing in my head. I was ready to go. I took a step forward and from the top of the cliffs I could see the beach area and there was a family, a mum, dad, little boy and girl and they were playing with a beach ball.

“I literally stopped and the only thought in my head was how could I put that family through this. They would see me falling beside them and that’s when I took a step back.

“I broke down into a ball on the ground crying and that’s when my own family came into my head and I sat there for a while thinking of everyone else.

“I got myself back to the car and took a call from the charity who stayed on the phone until I moved away.

“I was struggling to see how I could turn things around but I’ve gone back to being a positive person. The difference is amazing.”

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John with his three-year-old son Noah

John with his three-year-old son Noah

John with his three-year-old son Noah

His mum’s passing was only the beginning of John’s emotional tale of family loss.

His 20-year-old nephew Jason died in September, 2016 and dad Sean passed away in April, 2018.

Then his 54-year-old sister Shirley, who had cancer, died in December last year.

“I was a typical man, thinking I would be okay,” said John who finished the season with Institute.

“It all caught up with me as I didn’t grieve properly for my mum and ended up looking after my dad. I didn’t want to show dad I was struggling, I was trying to be strong for him. The grief was hidden inside of me. I wanted to be seen as a strong person, but things got on top of me.

“Young Jason had a muscular problem, was in a wheelchair and got pneumonia. His body wasn’t strong enough to fight it and Shirley had cancer until she passed away on December 1.”

John, who has played for several clubs including Cliftonville, Derry City, Finn Harps, Glenavon, Portadown and Ballinamallard United, found the strength and courage to open up about his worries and seek help.

That bravery has saved his life.

“I should have talked more openly years ago and told people what I’m feeling,” added John who played in Irish Cup finals for the Reds and Mallards.

“My feelings are associated with grief. Your mind is strong and can take you to great places or dark places.

“Mental health is so important and if something is causing you problems you should speak to someone. It’s been the best thing that I have ever done.

“I now look forward to the next day and future. There will be difficult days, but I’ve reached out for help and I feel the negative feelings will be outweighed by the positive.

“My family knows what happened and the support I’ve had from them has been great, they are looking out for me. We are in touch every day.

“I’m not naive, this happened just back in March, but I don’t want to go back to that place.”

The Back Onside mental health charity has given John incredible support and he’s been blown away by their compassion.

“They look after footballers and I reached out to them when I needed help. To be honest, I didn’t know where else to turn to,” he added.

“They have been helping me a lot. It’s amazing the work they do and how they have helped me just by talking to me.

“I always thought I was someone who can deal with things, but I opened up a few years ago after my dad had died, I never actually went to get proper help.

“I wish I had done that as now I know how important it is to speak to people and seek help.

“I thought what would people think of me, but that doesn’t enter my head now. You have to look after yourself and let people know how you feel, let them know what you are going through.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done and I couldn’t describe the change in me since that day in March. The charity have looked after me brilliantly.

“Put pride to the side and seek help because you will feel better, trust me you’ll be in a better place.”

John has decided he wants to play on next season. He keeps himself fit and is looking forward to a future he nearly denied himself.

“I got called out of the changing room by a coach and he said his brother was struggling and he has gone to get help, he wanted to thank me,” he said.

“I was overwhelmed. If I can help someone else by sharing my story then I need to do that as well.”

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 116 123, or Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. You can also contact the Back Onside charity on 07528 243 100.


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